Glyn Williams, The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008. Pp. 208. $19.95 (hardcover).
The story of the legendary Captain Cook takes us thousands of miles from the shores of England to the heart of the Pacific, the Hawaiian Islands. In the late 1700's, English explorers knew relatively little about the cultures and geography of this vast ocean; they sought the mysterious southern continent and the Northwest Passage (7). In The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade, Glyn Williams examines the Captain's legacy and attempts to sort out the myth from the man. Williams offers an overview of Cook's accomplishments in navigation, cartography, and exploration. James Cook opened Pacific seas and lands to the West, making way for whalers, missionaries, and imperial powers. However, his life and, Williams maintains, his death in 1779, has been the subject of constant revision and re-interpretation ranging from invader to a major figure in the European Enlightenment. Williams assumes the role of historical detective and relishes the untidy and often censored details of Cook's Pacific journeys, which makes this book of great interest, as well as great utility, for students and teachers of history.
Williams, a senior British historian of maritime exploration, does a busy teacher and less devoted student researchers a service by reviewing the voluminous and contentious scholarship, multiple narratives, epic literature, art and monuments devoted to Cook's life and death. He traces the changes in Cook's image over time, thoroughly documenting sources for the reader. In his post-colonial section, Williams draws upon the work of writers from all over the globe, including some Pacific Island authors, with their varying perceptions of Cook and his status as both hero and villain.
This writer first encountered this work while teaching history in the Hawaiian Islands, the site of Cook's final landfalls, where the 230th anniversary of Cook's death passed without event. Yet his story and influence is far from forgotten in Hawai'i, where young students often know the basic story of this famous English navigator.
Williams's work provides several educational hooks to attract the interest of secondary students. In class, I used the book's maps of Cook's journeys in the Pacific and primary sources such as John Webber's illustrations of the scenes of the voyage. It also informed my class discussion about the spread of foods, technology and diseases that marked these and many other cross-cultural contacts. Williams dispels some misconceptions - students were surprised to learn that Cook was likely celibate and exhorted his men to be as well: "But the task was an impossible one…" (145). In a unit assessment, I asked students to describe what was the most interesting thing they had learned and several of them listed Captain Cook's Pacific expeditions.
This work can easily be used to draw in students and illustrate the larger impacts of exploration, imperialism, and colonialism. The issues it raises are closely related to common World History standards as well as meeting the Hawai'i Content and Performance Standards benchmarks for The History of the Hawaiian Kingdom and Pacific Islands courses.1 The following prompts are inspired by The Death of Captain Cook: What are the reasons Captain Cook undertook the journeys to the Pacific? When explorers such as Cook had contact with Polynesian cultures, what were some of the immediate social effects that followed? There are many perspectives from which to see Captain Cook and the implications of his Pacific voyages; present at least two opposing viewpoints (for instance, praising the accomplishments or critiquing the invasion). How and why has the death of Captain Cook at the hands of the inhabitants of the island of Hawai'i changed over time? Why did noted American author and visitor to Hawaii, Mark Twain, call Cook's death "Justifiable homicide?"
Online resources for students and teachers:
Cook: Explorer, Navigator and Pioneer
Voyages Exhibit and Resources
Cook: The Art of Exploration Gallery Exhibit
Cook on the Web
Passage Nearly Open
Lauren F. Arvidson is a Social Studies teacher. She thanks Dr. Marc Gilbert and Dr. Alan Rosenfeld for their encouragement and assistance. She can be reached at LaurenArvidson@gmail.com.
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